Sunday, January 31, 2010

Oh what a paradise it seems!

Well-heeled tourists find the backwaters in Kerala’s Allapuzha district as one of the most enchanting on earth, while locals fret over their economic difficulties

Photos: (From left) Rajiv Shah, Shiraz Sabah, Jonathan Lenihan and Sander van Loosbroek on their houseboat; Fisherman P. Dhananjay next to his upturned canoe

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is a lazy afternoon in the backwaters of Alleppey on Kerala’s coast. Trees with thick leaves abound. Flowering plants grow wildly. The still waters have a greenish tinge. However, in the midst of serenely floating water hyacinths, there bobs up an occasional plastic soft drink bottle and pieces of debris.

A houseboat is tethered to a coconut trunk with thick ropes. In the living area are four young men, all in their early twenties. They are wearing Bermuda shorts and T-shirts and laughing loudly.

Sander van Loosbroek is an IT professional from Holland, while Jonathan Lenihan, Rajiv Shah and Shiraz Sabah -- two boys of Indian origin -- are medical students from London: All of them had taken part in an international auto-rickshaw race from Pokhara in Nepal, to Kochi, a distance of over 3000 kms.

Following the race’s conclusion, they discovered that they had a few days of their holiday left. So, they arrived at Allapuzha, to go cruising on a houseboat, which, in local parlance, is known as a ‘Kettuvallam’.

“It’s been a great experience so far,” says Sander. “The greenery is stunning, the silence is beautiful, and the people are nice.”

Rajiv says, “In the last two weeks, we have driven through the whole of India, but this is the place with the most natural beauty.”

Says Jonathan, with a broad smile: “The food is great. I have been having fish pollichathu and curry for the past two days non-stop.” The others laugh, while Shiraz claps Jonathan on the back.

When I ask them whether this is their idea of paradise, Sander says, “It is difficult to say. The backwaters are nice and peaceful, while life in Europe is hectic. But Europe is a very convenient place to live. We have all the amenities.”

Rajiv says that, like in Europe, life is tough in India in a different way. “You guys have to work a lot harder than we do,” he says. “You have to pay much more from your wages for essential services like gas, water, and electricity. And it is physically exhausting to live here, because of the heat and the humidity.”

Jonathan says that there are pros and cons of living anywhere. “I like the fast pace of life in England. So I would not like to stay here, but definitely would come back for a vacation.”

The Muscat-based Indians, Sandeep V. Kulkarni and Pankaj S. Parekh have not come for a vacation. Instead, having finished their work earlier than schedule at Kochi they came to spend the day in the backwaters with a senior Omani official, Ali Al-Mahrooqi. They are cruising on the unusually named ‘Lake & Zephyr’.

For Pankaj who grew up in the concrete jungle of Mumbai, the greenery is stunning. “This is my first visit to Kerala,” he says. “I am enjoying it.”

Ali Al-Mahrooqi likes the people very much. “They are very friendly and I felt accepted immediately,” he says. “As for the food, it is spicy and crispy. I have been to Indian restaurants before, but the food is not as fresh as what I ate today. Finally, all the cruising has been very soothing for the mind.”

Sandeep is stunned to discover that people live alongside the backwaters. “To be honest, I never knew that there are villages on the several islands,” he says. “I am jealous of them. There is no noise or air pollution. And they are leading such a peaceful life. We moved around some areas and stopped at a paddy field. It is so quiet and pleasant. I would like to stay here during my retirement years.”

Ali Al-Mahrooqi adds, “This is paradise.”

I am now curious to know the reaction of the people who live on these islands. So I stop at a narrow sliver of land. And I immediately spot P. Dhananjay, a portly fifty-six-year old man, who is leaning against an upturned canoe.

A fisherman, he had not gone for work for the past two weeks. “The number of fish is going down,” he says. “I am wasting my time. So I am staying at home.”

The water-fowl has been eating all the fish. The people had plans to shoot them. “But the bird lovers raised such a hue and cry that the proposal was shelved,” says Dhananjay. “So, while the birds can eat merrily and survive, we are going through a tough time.”

Dhananjay has lived in the backwaters all his life. His wife, Lakshmi, wearing a white blouse and a lungi steps out of the house, and says, “There is so much of pollution in the waters. People throw bottles and packets. The diesel fumes from the houseboats spoil the water. The fish are dying. And if you swim here you can get a skin disease.”

Adds Dhananjay: “During the monsoons, the water sometimes overflows the bund and enters our houses.”

When I tell them that the outsiders regard the backwaters as a paradise, they laugh in unison. “If you have lots of money, then this place can be considered as one,” says Dhananjay. “But it is not so for us.”

So what do they think of the tourists as they float past in their air-conditioned houseboats, with their wallets, crammed with American dollars or euros, and with the women sun-bathing in their skimpy bikinis?

“We don’t care much about them,” says Dhananjay. In the early years, the villagers would get excited when they saw the foreigners. Sometimes, the Westerners would stop and talk and give small gifts. Boys and girls would run on the bank and shout and laugh and wave at them. “Nothing like that happens now,” says Dhananjay. “We stare at them, they stare back at us. That is all.”

Does he feel envious? “Yes I do,” says Dhananjay. “Who would not be? I wish I had a life like them. When you have plenty of money, you can go for holidays to all parts of the world. All of them have jobs. Just like any human being I also want a good life. But even if I struggle hard, I cannot earn a proper living here.”

It sounds depressing, but like most people who live in close contact with nature, they are generous and kind. So, Dhananjay slices up a watermelon, with a knife and serves up fresh slices. Later, after a wash, I bid goodbye and move to another island.

There I step in, uninvited, into a one-room shack, whose door is open. It is neatly kept. There is a bed at one corner and a kitchen on the opposite side. Sheeba, 26, the mother of two small children, is alone at home.

“My husband has gone off to work,” she says. “He is a labourer. We earn just about enough to make ends meet. If there are any financial emergencies, we have nothing to fall back on.”

She says life is tough on the island. “The government should start some development schemes for the local people,” says Sheeba.

And she is candid enough to admit that she suffers from envy when she sees the tourists. “I wish that I have lots of money like them,” says Sheeba. “Then I could escape from this place and buy a nice house and a car. I would also like to travel all over the world.”

Sheeba pauses and says, “This is the thought that passes through the minds of all the islanders. You cannot avoid thinking it.”

As I leave, an old proverb suddenly pops up in my mind: ‘The grass is always greener on the other side’.


Trying to keep afloat

K. Vijayan is a hands-on boat owner. When his vessel, the 'Lake and Zephyr' arrives at the finishing point, after a one-day trip, his workers have no hesitation in throwing him the rope. Deftly, he ties it around the base of a lamp-post. Then he grabs a ladder and places it against the edge of the boat.

“Come on,” he says, and leads me inside. The first stop is the living cum dining room. Following that, there are three air-conditioned bedrooms, with small, attached bathrooms. At the back is a modern kitchen, where a cook is making some tea.

There are different types of boats. “They range from one to six bedrooms and there are vessels which can seat around 100 people for a conference,” says Vijayan. “The boats are divided into premium and luxury categories.”

The ‘Lake and Zephyr’ is in the luxury category. And the rates for this season are not very high. “We get Rs 5000 per room for 22 hours,” he says.

He bemoans a broker racket that prevents them from getting customers directly.

“The moment a tourist arrives in an auto-rickshaw or a taxi, they are stopped by the brokers,” he says. “The tourists are forced to deal with them. And these men take a major cut.”

What has aggravated the problem is that the supply outstrips the demand. "There are around 500 houseboats in Allapuzha," says Vijayan. "The government should put a limit on the number."

Vijayan says there is a lack of support from the authorities. “We do not receive any tourism subsidy or financial help,” he says. “We don’t get bank loans, because there is no provision to give one. At the same time we are paying luxury, canal, irrigation, and pollution taxes.”


(The New Indian Express, Chennai)


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